Facebook Tests News-Feed Ads That Lack Social Context

Cotton Delo

Facebook will shortly begin testing a new potential salve for its mobile problem: ads in your news feed that aren’t based on social context but can be targeted to users using the slate of criteria available for more traditional ad inventory, such as age, gender, likes and interests.

The test, which will appear on both desktop computers and mobile platforms, represents a change in Facebook’s proposition to consumers pitching news-feed ads as hardly like advertising at all. When desktop news-feed ads were introduced in January, for example, Facebook emphasized that they were based on friends’ engagements with branded content — and thus eligible to appear in news feeds organically, just like friends’ comments could. But the new ads will let marketers into news feeds without that level of connection.

That’s also a departure from Facebook’s usual pitch to marketers centering on the value of ads with social context and “word-of-mouth marketing at scale.” But the option to target news-feed ads to a broader range of consumers seems likely to at least intrigue advertisers. And a new, effective ad unit for mobile platforms would be more than welcome at Facebook.

Last week it rolled out mobile app ads, which allow developers to promote their app alongside organic recommendations for users, part of a growing body of mobile tests at the company. The urgent pace of mobile rollouts and tests reflects the challenge posed by mobile, where advertising is lagging usage for many and Facebook only began showing ads earlier this year. During its first-ever earnings call last month, Facebook said half of its 955 million monthly active users are now also accessing the platform on mobile. Its overall ad impressions in the U.S. dropped 2% from last year due to the shift in use to mobile from from desktop PCs.

Citing a positive, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that sponsored stories in news feeds — then Facebook’s only mobile ad product — were bringing in roughly $1 million a day, about half from mobile. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg called them the “cornerstone” of Facebook’s monetization strategy. Early research also suggested that ads in mobile news feeds had higher click-through rates than the same units on desktops.

Whether users will find the news-feed ads lacking social context any more disruptive than their forerunners depends partly on how truly organic they found the socially-driven news-feed ads. Does an ad from Walmart feel less like an ad because your friend from high school “liked” it?

A Facebook spokeswoman emphasized that the new ads are just a test.